Blog: The Educated Reporter

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.

Philissa Cramer, managing editor of the multi-state education news network Chalkbeat, said that the start of school is prime time to summarize the previous year’s worth of education news. How would that look like? Cramer proposed education reporters live-blog the opening of schools – kids laughing, parents’ car horns honking – with a heavy dose of context gleaned from past news cycles.

She gave the example of a press event in New York City on the first day of school that included principals: Chalkbeat’s New York bureau covered the gathering by reminding readers the district’s principals union has yet to reach a deal with district leadership. The New York team, though, is larger than most education desks in the country, so live-blogging may not work for all newsrooms. Still, Cramer encouraged reporters to ask themselves “What are the things I want the people in my city to know what has happened with schools recently?”

Another strategy, according to Cramer: Lay out a few of the questions you’ll likely want to revisit throughout the school year as it unfolds.

I have some other ideas: Is there still a teacher shortage? Squabbling among school board members? Outside money funding politically charged school-reform efforts? With so many readers affected by the return to school, reporters should take advantage of this captive audience to illuminate the big trends.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez of Southern California Public Radio presented ideas he has yet to cover but wants to, like following up on a new state law that allows high school students to have more access to community college courses as they work toward their diplomas. He wants to know how these courses differ from Advanced Placement classes and who’ll teach them – high school or college instructors. While the example may be specific to California, there’s likely at least one new education law that is just going into effect in other states.

My takeaway? Setting one’s sights on the ABCs of school start times and bus schedules in addition to a dedicated dive into new programs will offer news consumers a mix of the new, necessary and familiar.

Linda Shaw, education editor at The Seattle Times, spoke about her paper’s coverage of Seattle schools pushing back the start of the school day to allow teenagers to sleep more. Many districts are considering adopting similar reforms, in no small part because the American Association of Pediatrics advises that middle- and high-school students start no sooner than 8:30 a.m. Another suggestion from Shaw: what’s your school doing with the large body of research on social and emotional learning?

I have some follow-up questions, too. Is your school adopting curricular elements to boost students’ sense of self? Are there plans to measure students’ social and emotional development – and is that the best way to promote positive health and happiness among students?

If you’re unsure about which research ideas are taking shape in classrooms, consult EWA’s topics pages for current reports and developments that may be hitting your district soon.

And finally, a quality reminder from EWA’s Richmond: “While this might not be your first back-to-school, it’s the first back-to-school for hundreds if not thousands of families.”

The webinar is chock full of sound ideas and strategies from journalists that reporters can adopt to chase their own stories – or use as fodder to make the case to skeptical supervisors.